We know, we know: You're sick of Christmas music. So are we. But that doesn't mean there aren't a few notable holiday discs out there. Some are better than others, of course. But since you're going to get good and tired of 'em all really soon, we thought we'd offer a field guide to a few (including a couple Hanukkah discs) that might be worth your attention, one way or the other. (No, not 12—we know our limits.) Happy holidays, and happy listening.
THE RAMSEY LEWIS TRIO
Sound of Christmas
Coming out of the Charles Brown/Nat King Cole piano school, Ramsey Lewis was a lot less agonized and sexually charged than his contemporary Ray Charles, but with some of the same gut-blues and gospel bounce. He, too, was gunning more for pop success than jazz cred, and had a few huge boogaloo hits in the '60s before succumbing, inevitably, to smooth jazz in recent decades. This 30-minute session from 1961 has him in early jazz mode, dishing up some crisp, no-filler arrangements of eight Christmas standards (plus two originals), tossed off with wit and infectious pleasure. If you love Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas music (1965), this has some of the same flavor. The first half is trio only: Lewis makes quick work of "Winter Wonderland" and slyly uncovers "Blue Monk" hidden within the verses of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." His own "Christmas Blues" answers the question: Is it possible to swing with sleigh bells playing quarter-note time? (The answer: just barely.) Things get a little more interesting on the second half, with the addition of some hilariously cheesy orchestrations—strings, chimes, the works—that provide an irresistible foil for Lewis' over-the-top blues riffing. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" slips into a noirish jazz waltz from its churchlike opening, with Lewis trading twos with the string section. The disc closes with a lovely take on "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" that definitely matches some of Brother Ray's great, slow ballads with strings. Sweet, sour, and soulful. MARK D. FEFER
Oy to the World: A Klezmer Christmas
In a postelection climate where religion was a deciding and divisive factor, it's comforting to know that there are nice Jewish boys like Chicago producer/jingle writer Paul Libman who trash interfaith boun-daries by turning holiday standards into Eastern European folk music. You've heard these 10 yuletide songs on hundreds of commercials and in countless shopping malls, but you've probably never heard them played with a wailing clarinet and a fiery gypsy violin. Libman makes unexpected connections: "We Three Kings" with a schmear of James Brown's "I've Got You (I Feel Good)"; a "Little Drummer Boy" that quotes surf classics "Wipeout" and "Pipeline"; a "Joy to the World" featuring a hoedown and "Ochi Chornya"; "Jingle Bells" played as a tango and sung in Yiddish; "Good King Wenceslas" with dollops of "In-a-Gadda-da-Vida" and Rachmaninoff; "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" biting the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. There's even an original praising Santa's retailing skills and wishing him "gey gezunderheit" (good health). It's not as visionary as the Klezmatics or as versatile as Andy Statman, but Oy to the World has a wacky Zappa-meets-Zorn feel to it that holds its own against any borscht-belt humor and reminds us of the ties between vaudeville and klezmer back in the day. Why should Unitarians have all the fun? JASON GROSS
Music From The O.C.: Have a Very Merry Chrismukkah
(Warner Sunset/Warner Bros.)
Fade in, Newport Beach, Dec. 15, 2004: Summer, already late for school, applies way too much eye shadow to George Michael's kitschy-catchy "Last Christmas," performed with nearly zero smirk by Jimmy Eat World. Cut to Marissa driving to school, flask in hand, blasting—could it be?—the very same song on the car radio. Cut to Ryan; having just found out that Teresa lied about losing the baby, he broods in the pool house, head in hands, as Low's "Just Like Christmas" plays softly in the background. ("You said it was like Christmas/But you were wrong/It wasn't like Christmas at all.") Zoom in on his tear-stained face; this tough Chino boy has a sensitive side after all, especially when faced with the prospect of paying child support so another kid with his genes can grow up on the wrong side of the tracks. Meanwhile, under a gigantic Death Cab poster, Seth Cohen lights his Wonder Woman menorah to "Rock of Ages," sung to nerdy perfection by Ben Kweller, who turns the traditional Hanukkah song into rootsy, bare-bones bluegrass, accompanying himself on guitar.
Wondering what Sandy and Kirsten are up to? We thought you might be. Midway through "Christmas With You Is the Best," the Long Winters suggest a "nontraditional, nondenominational celebration" in deadpan, funkdafied fashion as the elder Cohens snooze. Mistaking one of Sandy's eyebrows for a rat, Kirsten awakens with a start, smacking Sandy with a pillow until he, too, is wide-awake. As they head downstairs to meet Ryan and Seth for a quick pre-work/school/unemployment breakfast, Ron Sexsmith muses hopefully, jingle bells and all: "Maybe this Christmas will mean something more/Maybe this year, love will appear/Deeper than ever before." Fade out. NEAL SCHINDLER
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
(Bear Family, Germany)
A novelty record in the sense that you'd have to be nuts—or at least extremely monomaniacal—to put the thing on for pleasure, this disc is nevertheless very useful indeed in a multidisc random-play situation. It collects 25 versions of the title song along with five variants: versions in French and German, Chuck Berry's immortal "Run Rudolph Run," Johnny Butcher's "They Shined Up Rudolph's Nose," and Homer & Jethro's deadpan "Randolph, the Flat-Nosed Reindeer." The best versions tend to be the ones that hew hardest toward country: Gene Autry's 1949 original, Ernest Tubb's twinkling-eyed 1961 version, Montana Slim and a jaunty organ skipping through it, along with a verse from "Jingle Bells," in 1950 (complete with "As they shooted oot with glee"—Slim was born in Nova Scotia), Hank Snow taking it honky-tonk-ward in 1967, and Roy Smeck letting his Hawaiian slide guitar tell the story in 1954. The 1959 rendition by Dean Martin gets the lounge-lush award for the mislaid dignity he throws into the line, "Won't you guide my sleeeiiigh tonight?"—not to mention changing the title character's name to "Rudy the Red-Beaked Reindeer" and throwing a ridiculous German accent on during Santa's plea for help. Not a great album, in other words, but you'll be using it for mix CDs for years to come. MICHAELANGELO MATOS
Where Will You Be Christmas Day?
Several years ago, while moonlighting at a local dive bar, I discovered that the not-quite-right-in-the-head day cook was spending the month of December closely monitoring a local AM radio station and keeping careful, obsessive track of which Christmas songs were played. Safe to say that none of the warm, antique tracks on this collection were included in my former co-worker's analysis—and that's part of what makes this new release so immensely appealing. Curated largely from original 78s by Washington, D.C., bluegrass scholar Dick Spottswood and the label that brought you Goodbye, Babylon, a critically acclaimed six-CD collection of Southern holy-rollin' songs, Where Will You Be collects 24 rare, resonant Christmas songs originating from 1917 to 1959. Some of them are reverent (Chicago's Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers' richly layered "Christ Was Born on Christmas Morn," from 1929), some are damn-near sacrilegious ("Christmas Morning the Rum Had Me Yawning," from 1939, by Trinidad's Lord Beginner); the performers range from near unknowns to the likes of Bessie Smith and Lead Belly. None of them are static, and none are as predictable as the carols that return to us each year like the flu. One of the most unique songs is performed by the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers and substitutes the spoken-sung notes "fa," "so," and "la" for the actual words of one verse, rendering the first 50 seconds of the track something likea circular, spiritual African folk song. Gorgeous, abstract, and otherworldly, their "Sherburne" might just shove the Scrooge right out of you. LAURA CASSIDY
Maybe This Christmas Tree
"I guess honestly, there's a part of me/That just wants to go to sleep," laments Belasana frontman Brett Detar on "Bittersweet Eve," the best song on this year's Maybe album. And can you blame him? Who wants to stay up until midnight alone? Later, he muses: "I wanted to celebrate happily, free/But your ghost just won't let me."
Since 2002, the Maybe series has distinguished itself from the widening morass of really bad Christmas-themed pop compilations by taking a contrarian tack. The holiday season isn't all glistening snowflakes and family joy, say these artists. It's also the source of nostalgic misery that makes you want to crawl under the tree and die by a thousand falling needles. The originals on Maybe mostly outclass the covers, since mall-saturating tunes (e.g., "Jingle Bells") just encourage washed-up artists like Lisa Loeb to phone in their performances. Even worse: Canadian mope-rock outfit Pilate's painfully unnecessary, totally unedifying take on the Pogues' great "Fairytale of New York."
Tom McRae's carol-on-Quaaludes treatment of "Wonderful Christmastime," on the other hand, actually works. It opens with the sound of a drink being poured, then turns the cloying classic ("Party's on, the spirit's up/You're here tonight, and that's enough") into a slow-motion dirge to slit your wrists by. Even local heroes Death Cab emerge unscathed from their straightforward reading of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," with the title's plaintive plea sounding surprisingly fresh in Ben Gibbard's transparent, openhearted voice. NEAL SCHINDLER
MESHUGGA BEACH PARTY
Sixteen Songs of the Chosen Surfers
Surf guitar god Dick Dale's family traces back to Eastern Europe and the Middle East, so it might not be surprising that quarter-tone melodies and "Hava Nagila" made it into his early songbook. Sporting a similar background, New York bar-band veteran Mel Waldorf had a love not only for the traditional Jewish melodies he heard his Polish grandfather sing but also for Dale's music. After falling for the sharp suits that both the Hasidim and the guitar bands wore, Waldorf's path was clear. Employing the familiar twangy, reverb guitars and two-minute time limits, Meshugga Beach Party is a traditional-yet-modern band, even if surf music is a few decades old by now. The mixture of holiday songs from Passover, Hanukkah and Yom Kipper services, and klezmer and Israeli folk songs on this album actually makes an impressive tour of Jewish musical heritage. "Hava Nagila" naturally leads off, while "Shalom Alechem" is a catchy mofo that even lapsed Jews remember as well as they do Hebrew party anthems like "Dayenu" and "Zum Gali Gali." If the "Rock of Ages" here doesn't hit as hard as the Def Leppard song of the same name, it easily beats out the traditional Christian tune of the same name. As sick as you might be of them, these tunes survived the ages for a reason. Even my rock-hating parents loved this album, with my mom swearing that she'd never heard a better version of "Hatikvah" in her life. That's kosher, indeed. JASON GROSS